In all men’s hearts it is
Some spirit old
Has turned with malign kiss
Our lives to mould.
O! ancient crimson curse!
Give back this universe
Its pristine bloom.
Isaac Rosenberg (1890-1918)
Last Wednesday was May Day – the International Workers’ Day which has been officially recognised and observed since 1890. It began as a commemoration of the death of four workers by Police shooting in Haymarket, Chicago during a General Strike. The Second International which met in Paris in 1889 to coincide with the centennial of the French Revolution called for demonstrations on 1st May 1890 and thereafter every year as an act of solidarity by the workers throughout the world. It was not long after. May Day began to be observed in Sri Lanka. In 1922, A E Gooneinha had formed the Ceylon Labour Union, the first organisation of workers in Sri Lanka. The first organised strike was by the laundry workers of Polwatte, Kollupitiya. The laundry workers were reportedly led by an Anglican priest who was then the Vicar of the Church of St Michael and All Angels in the same village. The first major trade union to be formed was perhaps the Ceylon Mercantile Union in 1928. Also about the same time, the General Clerical Service Union. The CMU represented the white collar workers in the private sector while the GCSU was formed to represent the same class of workers in the public service.
Up to the fifties and even the early sixties, May Day was observed throughout Sri Lanka as a mass rally of workers which was preceded by street processions. The Government of S W R D Bandaranaike had declared May Day as a public and Mercantile holiday. There was genuine worker participation in the rallies and in the processions, largely because the trade unions, despite most of them being led by left politicians, were genuine workers’ organisations, unlike today when they are mostly mere appendages of political parties. Whereas up to about fifty years ago, May Day was a workers’ rally putting forward trade union demands and the workers in the processions shouting catchy and colourful slogans, today it has become a political pageant with even musical shows. Then, the trade unions themselves mobilised their members to travel and join the processions and rallies; now people (not necessarily trade unionists) are transported in buses; if it is for a rally of a ruling government party, the state owned buses are used. For the people thus being transported, it is an all expenses paid outing. The slide began with the formation of ‘trade unions’ by political parties, who until then had shown little interest in workers’ rights.
Effectiveness of Trade Unions
There are no short cuts for workers to achieve their demands for a working wage and dignified working conditions. Joining a trade union sponsored by the political party then holding the reins of government only debases both the individual member as well as the trade union concerned. Today, perhaps the oldest trade unions are the Ceylon Mercantile Union, the General Clerical Service Union and the Ceylon Workers’ Congress. They have always been led by men who were also politicians. But the leadership in the old days maintained thnir independence and never sacrificed their membership at the altar of political gain. The membership of those trade unions included workers who were supporters of various parties. The leadership of the CMU and the GCSU were members of the LSSP but all the membership did not necessarily support the LSSP. The members had their own political party affiliations or sympathies but they accepted the leadership who ensured they conducted the trade union activities in a non-partisan manner. The CWC was in a category of its own. It was both a political party as well as a trade union. In S Thondaman they had a charismatic leader and, by and large, the membership dared not challenge him. In turn, Thondaman also looked after the interests of the workers, not misusing his position for personal or political gain.
Today, the trade union movement is a pale shadow of the dynamism and vitality it showed fifty years ago. It is only the CMU which has maintained its unity and strength and that is because in Bala Tampoe they have a person unmatched for his qualities of leadership. It is for this reason that on this International Workers’ Day, we wish to pay a tribute to this colossus among trade unionists.
Comrade Bala Tampoe
Bala Tampoe became the Secretary of the CMU at the comparatively young age of 25. After becoming one of the first graduates of the newly established University of Ceylon, he had been appointed a Lecturer at the Government School of Agriculture in Peradeniya. But as a committed socialist, he had participated in the General Strike of 1947 and lost his job as a result. But the loss to academia was to prove a huge gain for the trade union movement. Last year, both the Trade Union movement in Sri Lanka and Tampoe turned ninety; and Tampoe himself completed sixty-five years as General Secretary of the CMU – an incredible achievement by any standard. During these sixty five years, Tampoe has earned the respect not only of the workers but of the employers as well, both for his integrity as well as for his uncompromising stand for the rights of the workers he represented.
In 1966, Tampoe married May Wickremasuriya, who had joined the CMU as assistant secretary ten years earlier. On her death in 1998, Franklin Amerasinghe, the then Director General of the Employers Federation, in a tribute to her, stated that Bala and May were an inseparable team. Bala’s advocacy was complemented by May’s incisive mind and solid preparation. Shortly before her death, Tampoe himself addressing the CMU Delegates Conference referred to her as ‘my most valued comrade and companion for over forty years….If not for her unfailing assistance and support. I could not have done whatever I have done for this Union and the workers’ movement.’
It is not easy to separate Tampoe the trade unionist from Tampoe the politician, or indeed from Tampoe the Man. If he was uncompromising in his commitment to the workers movement, he was equally uncompromising in his life-long commitment to the socialist ideology, and equally uncompromising in the dignity and integrity with which he conducted himself in any forum. When the LSSP joined the coalition government in 1964, he left the Party along with Edmund Samarakkody and others to found LSSP (Revolutionay). He has never wavered in his political stance or principles.
In 1971, the JVP spearheaded the first southern insurgency. It was brutally suppressed and its leaders were arraigned before a specially constituted Criminal Justice Commission. Tampoe readily agreed to defend those who had to face a trial before the CJC. Lionel Bopage was one of the leaders of the JVP then and in a recent essay, he refers to the contribution of Tampoe to their defence: “Bala did not have any doubt that the JVP in the seventies was a genuine youth movement seeking redress to the socio-economic issues that affected them. For most of us in the JVP, it was our first encounter with the law and we were convinced that Comrade Bala and his team were correct in their position because the CJC trial was not just a legal matter but predominantly a political matter. It was on a decision made by the CMU that Comrade Bala and the team appeared on behalf us of or advised us, the accused in the main trial. Thereafter, throughout the main trial, Comrades Rohana Wijeweera, Uyangoda, Kelly Senanayake and myself regularly met with Comrade Bala and his team. Most of the trial was full of political sparks with the state prosecutors and the judges on one side and us and our counsel on the other side of the fence. Comrade Bala and his team demonstrated not only their brilliant legal skills but also their astute political skills in uncompromisingly exposing the acts of class betrayal by the government of the day and their supporters. The trial also exposed fault lines in the JVP. It exposed us as being politically immature, romantic and adventurist in our methods of struggle. Some in the JVP changed their political stripes while others left the political fray for personal reasons.”
Women in the TU Movement
Apart from May Wickremasuriya Tampoe, there were many other women who played a leading role in strengthening the workers’ movement in Sri Lanka. Perhaps this needs a separate study by some scholar, both as to the Trade union movement in general and the role played specifically by women in it. Many women like Doreen Wickremasinghe, Kusuma Gunawardena, Florence Senanayake Vivienne Goonewardene, Tamara Kumari Illangaratne and Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga were Members of Parliament who actively supported the labour movement but they were not involved directly in trade unionism. There were however some lesser known names like Ponsinahamy Ediriweera, Catherine Perera, Lassie de Silva and Trixie Mendis who in one way or another made a significant contribution to the workers’ movement. It is hoped that their contribution will be recognised when the story of trade unionism in Sri Lanka is written.
Workers position today
Today, the real burden for the middle and working classes in Sri Lanka is the unbearable increase in the cost of living. While the country’s scarce resources are being expended on schemes like a new international airport, a modern new harbour, international sports stadiums, hosting or attempting to host Commonwealth Conferences, Asian Games and other grandiose projects of Ozymandiasian proportions, the living costs for the ordinary citizen keeps mounting. The recent rise in electricity tariffs will have a huge impact on living costs. The changes to the tariff that were announced on May Day is not going to make any significant difference.
The plight of the workers in the Free Trade Zones continues to worsen. Now there are reports that some of the FTZ companies are seeking to bring in cheap (slave?) labour from countries like China to reduce their costs of manufacturing. It is hoped that better counsel will prevail and that this request will be denied. But strange things can happen for which we need a vigilant opposition, something that we lack today.
At a felicitation meeting held recently, Bala Tampoe commented: “When Mahinda Rajapaksa was Minister of Labour, he formulated the Workers Charter to which we ourselves contributed. At the time he could not get it passed in Parliament. Today he has a two thirds majority. Is it even taken up today?
No! That is because today they say it is irrelevant. I can see that there is lack of solidarity amongst workers. It is time to revive the power of the worker. We may not have the power of the ballot. But we certainly have the power of the labour.”
Yes, it is time for the working people of Sri Lanka to unite. They have nothing to lose but the chains that bind them. President Rajapakse cannot continue claiming that the ending of the northern insurgency has freed them. The same and newer chains continue to bind the working people of our country.